It’s been almost 30 years since I lived in San Angelo, but the sky still slays me every time I visit. I don’t usually get all that homesick for this city of 93,000; Austin, where I went to college, has a stronger hold on me. But a few years ago, when I saw a Texas Monthly spread with incredible panoramic photos of storms across the Central and West Texas sky, I practically burst into tears. And in person, that sky never fails to fill me with a swirl of emotion as rich as the view overhead.
Family aside, that’s about as powerful a connection as I might ever feel to my home town, which I was ready to leave as soon as I graduated from high school. These days, when I make my annual or semiannual return, I mostly sit indoors and talk to my mother.
So when the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the city on its annual Dozen Distinctive Destinations list this year, my reaction was immediate: Seriously? San Angelo? The place that I tend to describe to friends as 41
2 hours from everything? Or as one of the largest cities in the country without access to an interstate highway? Or much else?
I studied the Trust’s description: Okay, it’s true that Fort Concho, the reason the city was founded, is one of the best-preserved frontier citadels in the nation. And yes, I knew about Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum, where you can see where the namesake madam and her girls entertained men until the 1940s. And I’ve been to the newish art museum, with its roof that resembles a covered wagon. I’ve always found the riverwalk through town a little sad compared with, say, San Antonio’s. But wait: What is this Paintbrush Alley? And . . . a waterlily park? In parched West Texas?
Either San Angelo has more going on than I’ve given it credit for, or the National Trust is getting a little desperate.
So I made a vow. The next time I visited, I’d get out and about (with my mother in tow as much as possible), to get a better idea of what San Angelo has become.
I owed it to the city to look at more than just the sky.
Lilies in the desert
Two centuries before the founding of San Angelo, the story goes, Franciscan missionaries who traveled here came upon a crystal-clear stream overflowing with lilies. They named it Rio Florido, or River of Flowers. (Later, it took the name Concho River in honor of the many shells, or concha, that explorers found, some of them containing freshwater pearls.) Those flowers, which botanists call Nymphaea elegans, fell victim to turtles and other predators and disappeared from Texas streams.